Would More Generous Welfare Benefits Reduce the Abortion Rate?

by Michael J. New

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has an interesting article in last week’s American Conservative. In it, she argues that pro-life policy efforts center too much around rules and regulations. Instead, she suggests that pro-lifers try to improve the financial situation of women facing unexpected pregnancies. While there are proposals to do this through tax credits, Bruenig dismisses these ideas as too complicated or too stingy to help the poorest women. She suggests instead a no-strings-attached cash allowance for low-income mothers.

Having been involved with research on abortion trends and pro-life laws for over ten years, I have become somewhat cynical about many commentators who argue for more generous public benefits as a strategy to reduce abortion. These arguments are typically put forward during election time and are used to provide political cover for pro-lifers who are supporting candidates who favor legal abortion.

Bruenig, however seems sincere. She is correct that women seeking abortions are disproportionately low income. She is also correct that low-income earners are more likely to identify as “pro-life” than the rest of the population. Furthermore, she cites good research which shows that many women submit to abortions due to financial pressures. There is a good chance that many of these women are not favorably predisposed to abortion — and might have carried their pregnancy to term had their financial situation been stronger.

Overall, pro-lifers are of two minds about welfare benefits. Bruenig is correct that reducing the financial pressures on pregnant women might persuade more of them to carry their pregnancy to term. However, high welfare benefits might also either encourage or enable more single-parent families, and a large number single parent families would further reduce the stigma toward premarital or extramarital sex. This might create a more permissive sexual culture, and one where abortions would happen more often.

Most importantly, there is not one peer-reviewed study which shows that greater spending on welfare or other social programs reduces the abortion rate. Some analysts point to lower abortion rates in European countries which tend to have more generous public benefits for low-income earners. However, the abortion rate in many of these countries is rising, while the abortion rate in the United States has been falling. Pro-lifers should certainly advertise the excellent work pregnancy resource centers are doing in meeting the needs of many women facing unplanned pregnancies. That said, expanding welfare benefits is a strategy that probably will be less successful than advertised.

— Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan – Dearborn and an adjunct scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New.